Last week saw the emergence of what could turn out to be a serious conflict between the federal center and one of Russia’s regions. The parliament of the Republic of Tatarstan decided to bring the date of the election of the republic’s president forward from March 2001 to December 24, 2000. The move was condemned by Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Election Commission. Veshnyakov said that, in moving the election up, Tatarstan had violated federal law. He warned the republic’s leadership that court proceedings would “dog them right up to the day of the vote” (Russian agencies, September 29).
The problem is not, of course, just a matter of the election date. Throughout Russia, pre-term elections are a recognized means whereby incumbent leaders take the opposition by surprise and ease their own election (President Putin himself used a variant of this technique in the spring). The elections in Tatarstan are a special case, however. According to the republic’s law, Tatarstan’s President Mintimer Shaimiev has the right to run for a third term–something forbidden under federal law (Segodnya, September 25). There is little doubt that, if he runs again, he will win a third term. Given his status as informal leader of Russia’s regional elites, moreover, Shaimiev’s victory will be a signal to other regional leaders that it is possible to retain their grip on power even under President Putin’s “dictatorship of law” (Izvestia, September 25).
Thus far, the federal center has reacted with confusion to Shaimiev’s bid for a third term. Inconsistent remarks by Veshnyakov are indicative. In one interview, Veshnyakov said that Tatarstan’s election was governed by federal law, which rules out more than two terms for top officials (Segodnya, September 29). In another interview, he noted that the federal law prohibiting more than two terms came into effect only a year ago and stipulates a two-year transition period. This loophole, according to Veshnyakov, makes it possible for regional leaders to run for a third term (Izvestia, September 29).
The mood in Tatarstan is defiant. Farid Mukhametshin, speaker of Tatarstan’s parliament, insisted that the republic’s law does not prevent Shaimiev from running for a third term and that the strictures of the federal authorities fly in the face of democracy. “What if the incumbent president of Tatarstan stands for election and get the votes of 80-90 percent of the population,” Mukhametshin demanded. “Is this not the will of the people?” (Russian agencies, September 26). As for Shaimiev, he has not yet officially announced whether he will participate in the elections. It is likely that he and Putin are still negotiating over this thorny issue. The outcome will show how resolute the Russian president is about subordinating the regional elites and to what degree this desire can be made a reality.
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